Plevo skated fast over the marshes, not caring that his villi were becoming hot with the effort of prolonged flight. He had to get out of range of settlement before he could give his feelings full rein. It was one of the ways he envied the psiders: their lack of telepathic connection meant that they were free to feel whatever they wanted, without necessarily offending others.
A rocky outcrop loomed out of the vapor which hung perpetually over the marsh, and Plevo adjusted his skirt to gracefully sweep behind it. Its crystalline structure would shield him from all but the most probing minds. There was a cave behind the outcrop, with a smooth stone floor, swept clean of debris by one of the small tsunamis which were a regular feature of life on their world. Plevo allowed his skirt to spread evenly around him, and stilled his villi, allowing the skirt to take his weight. He could see the tracks of several psiders, their point-like footprints punctuating the fine sand, but for now he seemed to be alone.
Breathing deeply, he consciously allowed the dams he had built around his feelings to erode. A wave of deep anger and resentment rose through him, as hot as a flush of blood. Flippers tensed in anguish, he threw back his head and howled. Plevo understood just how important this project was to others on his team, and that the team itself had been selected from infancy to contain the best and most progressive minds. But as the member of the team who dealt most intimately with the psiders, perhaps he had a greater appreciation of how important the symbiosis between their races was to them both. It seemed grossly offensive to try to remove them from the balance that had served both races so well for so long, and his anger was not an emotion easily contained from the team.
Others were not always skilled at concealing their emotions either. Legot, the old hoverbeest who led the team, and who had personally selected many of the members, had little respect for the psiders. She saw them as dull-witted, with their simplistic language which only permitted slow, verbalised speech, one psider at a time. Lacking the power of group-think, they would never be able to progress much past basic physical imperatives. She found the way they moved on the delicate points of their dozen legs a little creepy, unlike the beautiful soft billowing skirts of her own kind. But most worrying of all to Plevo, she saw a day when they would not be required by the hoverbeests, which he felt would throw out the balance between the species which had worked so well for millennia.
While Plevo also found the fine delicate limbs of the psiders odd, he could not help but recognise a kind of beauty in the skill with which they could manipulate matter. He looked at his own flippers, and wriggled them tentatively, shaking out some of the tension. They were lovely to look at, no doubt, with slightly iridescent skin which reflected the vapor clouds around him, all colours of the rainbow shining from their smooth surface. But they were clumsy compared to the hard shells of the psiders limbs. He could lift great weights, and his villi gave him the power to speed over the surface of the swamps, but when it came to fine motor control, he could no better fasten two objects together than he could swim.
The psiders did not hover over the swamps as his own race did, but had evolved to move carefully along the bottom of the marsh, their sensitive limbs feeling tentatively for obstacles which could damage their fine carapaces. Before the intellect of the hoverbeests transformed their world, they slept piled up on the rocky outcrops when they could find them, or dangling from the limbs of the mangroves which grew in shallower sections. The frequent seismic activity on the small planet left the psiders vulnerable to being smashed by tsunami, and it had been suggested that the relationship between the two species had started when a hoverbeest had scooped up a nest of young psiders in its strong flippers and carried them to safety over the water.
Now the telepathic communication between the hoverbeests had reached a stage of evolution where the fine buildings they enjoyed, the comfort of artificial light and heat, were all constructed by trained psiders, according to plans developed by Plevo’s own team. Even he, who was truly fond of their fellow creatures, was unsure how much they understood of what was being designed, but they were happy to enjoy the benefits of shelter and protection offered by the hoverbeests. It was partly this uncertainty which fuelled his anger at the next project being designed by the team, and just thinking about it, his villi started to flutter in agitation until he lifted slightly from his seat without even realising it.
Legot had asked the team to design something, to be built by the psiders, which would make psiders obsolete in the symbiotic relationship which had sustained and nourished them both. She had asked them to design four fingered ‘hands,’ which could be fitted to the flippers, and controlled telepathically. She saw it as the invention which would give the race freedom. Plevo saw it as an offence against nature.
Having given vent to his feelings, Plevo breathed the fumes of the swamp deeply, and felt a kind of calm return to him, his logical mind reasserting itself. Looking out over the land, a new emotion stole in, of a respect for the loveliness of his planet. Light shone through the ever present vapor, refracting into a spectrum of colours. The mangroves stood tall and majestic, their gnarled branches seeming to frame the view of the next settlement, glassy and delicate on the curved horizon. Beyond the city, Plevo noticed the sky darkening and knew it was time he returned to his own home. Fluttering his villi, he rose from his skirt and glided out over the marsh. Only ripples showed where he had been.
Getting closer to the settlement, he could feel the warmth of the group-mind reaching out towards him like an invisible quilt: comforting, familiar, and occasionally a little stifling. He had often wondered what it was like for the psiders, with no apparent telepathic ability. They must feel so alone. No wonder they all huddled together at night: physical proximity was the only way they had of feeling comforted in the same way. Plevo noticed a few of them now, travelling on one of the walkways which had been constructed solely for them, its span as fine as spun sugar. They seemed to huddle together at the sight of him, and one called out, but he was travelling at such speed he did not catch what it said.
As Plevo rounded under another walkway and into the shadow of the institute, which rose high above the marsh, he started to feel the minds of his team more clearly. They were intent on something, but not in accord, so probably not currently designing. He cruised on to a platform, and allowed himself to settle onto a moving plate which raised him high into the transparent structure. The fading light caught edges and corners, making them flash. Soon the moons would rise, giving the whole a silver sheen.
Hall echoed with voices as he entered, and he sensed frustration, empathy and a little fear. The giant portals, with only a light organic netting over each opening, provided a panoramic view of the city below, each group of buildings linked by the fine psider walkways. Plevo noticed a gaggle of young hoverbeest discovering the power of their young villi by seeing how far up a sheer wall they could propel themselves before their skirts crumpled and they fell back into the swamp. He smiled, remembering his own youth and the bruises he had sustained wall-skimming.
His team sensed his arrival in Hall and greeted him warmly, if a little distractedly. A group of psiders, led by the one he had dubbed ‘Speckle’ due to the distinctive pattern on its shell, was drawn up in a tight group, speaking to Legot. The other members of the team floated in the background, seemingly absorbed in other tasks, but he could feel their involvement in the exchange.
Speckle stamped its thin legs on the floor in agitation, the hard carapace squeaking against the surface in a way which put even Plevo’s nerves on edge. “What if we refuse to build these objects?” it asked, truculently. There was a clicking of shells in agreement.
“Why would you do that?” asked Legot in her most soothing tones. “Are these any different from building our other works?”
“Yesss. The other things, they all helped us both in the end. We think that these will help you alone.”
‘They know,’ realised Plevo with shock. He saw the ripple of the thought in the slowing of his fellow hoverbeests. Drawing on the calm he had found in the marsh, he sent a constructed thought to the team. ‘Why are we asking them to build something which will only benefit us?’ The reply from Legot was swift and shocking in its intensity. She really was losing her emotional control in her old age.
‘Because they only hold us back. And how did they figure this out, Plevo? Do I detect a traitor?’ She blasted in reply. Other members of the team were by turns offended and conciliatory, cooing that Plevo was one of theirs. He added his assurances. Nonetheless, it was interesting that the seemingly dull psiders were suddenly more aware of the purpose of the designs.
“All our work has benefitted both races, in some way or other,” Legot said, soothingly. Not a flicker of the emotion they knew was brewing underneath showed in her peaceful features.
“We fear that this will allow you to build without needing us. We fear that selfishness may arise between our races.” Speckle went on doggedly. “We would prefer to maintain harmony, and balance.”
Plevo was impressed. Speckle must have intellectual powers much greater than he had previously suspected, but it was so hard to tell with these psychologically opaque beings. It was so much easier to know exactly the capabilities of individuals when they were part of a group-mind, and fit them into a useful and productive part of the whole. The other psiders clacked their legs irritably, and some of them shouted out from behind Speckle.
“You want to get rid of usss! After all we’ve done to help you!”
“All our designs have helped both races,” reiterated Legot calmly, but Plevo could feel the annoyance and disdain building in her. Plevo roused himself and floated to her side.
“We appreciate that you have understood some of the latest design. But please explain what you think that it will do, just so that we can be sure there are no misunderstandings,” he said.
Speckle tilted its shell slightly to one side as if considering. The other psiders behind him calmed as the pause stretched. Eventually, it said “This new device, with the four probes. We can see that it would fit your flippers, and that there are electrodes for connecting to the skin. We do not understand how you are able to understand one another without speaking, but we think that perhaps you will be able to control these devices in the same way. You will be able to handle matter, just as we have done for you for many generations. We do not have the skills to think as you do, and we recognise that between us, we have constructed a good world. It would be bad to destroy that relationship by making us obsolete.”
The feeling of empathy, of surprise at the level of understanding of this seemingly simple creature, and also of shame, rippled through the room. A strong sense that they needed time to consider these issues arose, and sighing, Legot bowed to pressure, saying out loud to the group of psiders, “We hear your concerns. We ask for time until the sun rises again to consider these thoughts.”
The psider rocked back and forth on his spindly legs. Plevo could not tell if it was in agitation or thought. It was so rare to see a psider trying to think, rather than just acting blindly on instruction. After a moment, it stamped its feet decisively on the smooth floor, silencing the clatter of shells which was rising behind it. “We will hear you when the sun rises.” The group left, the mass movement of their fine legs sounding like rain.
‘How do they know?’ ranted Legot when they had left. ‘Did someone help them?’
No-one in the team knew. The wider ripples of the conversation were starting to be felt from outside the institute, and the sense of surprise and the exchange. One thought came back clearly from the education wing. ‘We species are supposed to help each other. We cannot survive without them, nor they without us, except as savages.’
There was general agreement from the community, but Legot replied. ‘We could do so much more, make so much progress, if were able to manipulate matter by ourselves. We would not need to explain everything to the psiders. We have reached a stage where they are holding us back.’ Some of the team chimed in with their feeling of frustration, and of great hope for the future, could they just make this one step forward.
Plevo caught the edge of an observation by one of his team, and followed their gaze. From the eyrie of Hall, he could see a great mass of psiders, flowing from one building to another, picking up more individuals as it went. They climbed over one another’s backs in their haste, and the scuttling, almost oozing movement of so many creatures made him feel slightly nauseous. His mind’s eye could hear the terrible clatter of their feet on the fine walkways, some even hanging underneath the bridges and still progressing forward, out of the city. As the mass of psiders scuttled through, a wave of shock and distress rose from the minds of the hoverbeest they encountered.
‘They are leaving! Our friends are returning to the swamps!’
‘If the psiders suspect that the new design would make them unnecessary, they could revolt against us. Although they are fragile where we are strong, we would fail quickly without their help.’ A flash of fear seemed to light their minds. Plevo could not trace its direction, coming as quickly as it did.
There was little cohesive group-thought for a while, as the hoverbeests watched their symbiotic partners evacuate the settlement, in surprise and dismay. As they reached the fringes of the city, they tentatively entered the swamp, thin legs reaching out and feeling the way before them. The murky liquid closed over their hard shells, and they were gone. Plevo felt suddenly alone and unprotected.
An old voice spoke clearly through the mass-mind. ‘We are asking our friends to build the objects of their own destruction. No wonder they prefer to choose their own path now.’ The shame feeling rose again in the group. One of the design team replied, ‘We would still need the psiders to do most of the construction. They would still benefit from our thoughts and would be partners in our achievements. But these ‘hands’ would allow us to progress the most demanding projects more quickly.’
Despite his best efforts to calm his thoughts in the swamp, Plevo could feel his anger rising again. He tried to hide it, but there was no real place to hide from the group-mind. ‘Express your thoughts,’ said a voice clearly to him. Tensing and releasing his flippers, those objects which were ostensibly holding back the hoverbeest race, he spoke. ‘We have lived in balance with the psiders for millennia. We would not be who we are now without them, nor them without us. These ‘hands’, they may help us to work more quickly, to design more quickly, but at what cost? Is harmony or progress really more important to us?’
There was a pause in the constructed thoughts, and a feeling of consideration. Plevo wondered vaguely if this battle between progress and equality, had raged on other worlds. Which way had their decision taken them? He saw in his mind’s eye a world where the hoverbeest were supreme, their technology leading them to venture into the stars. But beneath the fine cities, the rejected psiders lived as a slave class, or worse, like animals back in the marsh, at the mercy of the elements. Alternatively, they could decide not to build the ‘hands’, to continue to rely on the psiders. Equality and balance would remain, but at what cost? Would scientific frustration stifle them?
Many hours passed in discussion, and yet no consensus could be reached. The Moons rose, one shining through each of the huge portals, so that the room was lit in silver. Legot traced a lazy figure eight as she swept over the glassy floor, completed absorbed in their debate, and unaware of her movements. To Plevo it showed just how passionately she cared about their progress, and he was moved by the depth of her commitment.
Their attention directed toward the exodus of the psiders and the moral dilemmas facing them, the hoverbeests were unaware of the way that the sky had darkened further since Plevo had first noticed it in the swamp. The group-mind had the capacity for great collective reasoning, but also for collective distraction. Now the storm had reached a stage where it could not be ignored. Leaves and branches from the giant mangroves were whipped against the sides of buildings, which creaked gently in the gale. The swamp, which had been tranquil and limpid, now thrashed angrily with waves. Looking down from the height of the Hall, Plevo watched as a mangrove trunk, caught by a large wave, was smashing into one of the delicate walkways which the psiders relied upon. It shattered, fine fragments peppering the surface of the swamp. He winced.
‘Everybody down to first level,’ ordered Legot. All around him, his colleagues rose smoothly, their skirts swishing over the smooth floor. There was a feeling of resignation, a surety that another tsunami was on its way. The settlement had endured many such events, with varying degrees of damage. This time, though, the psiders had abandoned them, as they had feared abandonment themselves. Who would repair the damage to their beautiful city?
Amid the awareness of the storm, and somewhat distracted by it, a sense not only of the historical debt they owed the psiders, but also of the moral obligation to them started to rise from the group-mind. Also, somewhat surprisingly to Plevo, an affection for their symbiots. A thought struck Plevo so suddenly that he almost stopped his villi, and sank dangerously close to the turbulent waves. How would the psiders weather the tsunami? It had been many years since they had tried to face it alone, without the protection offered by walls and the platforms which raised them above the waves. They could not have known it was coming when they decided on their evacuation.
Leaving the safety of the compound, Plevo vaulted off the platform, relying only on the strength of his hover to keep him above the turbulent waves. He could feel his villi becoming hot with the effort of keeping him so high above the surface, but continued nonetheless, ignoring the feelings of bewilderment and concern from some of his fellows. A windblown branch caught him across the skirt, knocking the air from it, and he dropped dangerously close to the surface, feeling a splash on his cheek. Arcing back into the air, he regained altitude, and skated to the place where they had watched the last of the psiders descend below the surface. He alighted on the sloping platform, waves sweeping around the base of his skirt.
Almost unbelievably, a single thin leg clung to the edge. Taking it in his strong flippers, Plevo raised the last psider above the waves. It was not one he knew well, but he thought its name might be Dimple. It hung limply, one leg broken and hanging loosely. Plevo’s heart went out to the damaged creature, obviously in some pain, and the feeling was echoed throughout the group-mind. ‘What have we done?’ Cradling Dimple in his flippers, Plevo held the psider high above the storm’s ferocity. It was only by holding it close that he was able to make out its whisper.
“They are over at the big outcrop. Sheltering in a cave. We only meant to leave you for a night. Help us? Help us?” Not for the first time, Plevo wished that he could see into its opaque mind, to determine the integrity of the creature’s words.
Scanning the horizon, Plevo could not see the bulk of the main tsunami but knew it must be coming. The swamp level had begun to drop, exposing the tangled roots around the footings of the city. He felt Legot take charge. ‘All young adult hoverbeest to me,’ she ordered. Plevo joined the group, handing Dimple gently to an older male. Without even needing to verbalise the thought, they set off fast across the wild waves of the swamp. Travelling as a tight group, they could achieve lift more easily than an individual, and they made good time to the outcrop. The sight which greeted them was pitiful.
The psiders, realising their peril, had crushed into the small cave on the rocky headland. Fine legs protruded like stiff hair from the entrance, showing how tightly packed and jumbled they must be. The remaining creatures, left to the mercy of the wind and waves, had tried to construct shelters from the mangoves, but they were poor protection compared to the buildings they were used to. The broken bodies of Speckle and a few others lay on the sand. Plevo approached Speckle with particular sorrow. He had not known such understanding in a psider before, and the sense of waste was nearly overwhelming. However, there was no time for sentiment. Speckle’s body would be washed into the swamp when the tsunami hit. There were others who could be saved. Plevo joined the group of hoverbeest at the entry to the cave.
It was quickly evident that the psiders had no intention of putting their safety willingly into the hands of the people who had so recently tried to remove them. The depth of mistrust that the invention of the ‘hands’ had spawned startled and dismayed Plevo, and he felt the disappointment spread through his fellows. He glanced back at the horizon. The wave was visible now, as a darker line above the swamp, and he shuddered at the size of it. The force with which it would hit the city, and the outcrop where the misguided psiders huddled, would be immense.
Turning back to the cave, he surveyed the scene again with urgency. A few fine legs protruding from it waggled sadly. It was almost tempting to use physical force to bring the psiders to the shelter of the city, but every hoverbeest knew from infancy that the delicacy of the psiders could not be underestimated. Pulling them out would only dislocate and remove legs, not save the creatures.
Sending his mind out to his fellows, he knew that a decision on the future of their symbiosis must be made, and adhered to. It could not wait until morning. Only by convincing the psiders of their future, could they entice them to be removed to safety. Having worked with them for so long, Plevo knew better than almost anyone else that once set on a course, a psider would be loyal, determined, but ultimately immovably stubborn.
He sensed one or two flickers of annoyance that their decision must be rushed, but as the group mind saw the pitiful state of their fellow creatures, crushed like animals into the cave, they swiftly repented. Plevo reached out particularly to Legot.
‘I have been a fool,’ she thought, seeing the creatures which had helped them faithfully now in peril. ‘The price of my intellectual pride is too high.’ A wave of embarrassment and guilt came over her, and she waved her flippers in distress. Swiftly, the decision was made, a non-verbalised decision, but binding nonetheless. Their technology would progress only with the agreement of the psiders: it was undoubtedly the right thing to do. Harmony and equality would be preserved over the temptations of progress at all costs.
Plevo floated forward, standing proud of the group of young hoverbeests. Calling out in a voice strong enough to carry above the storm, he bellowed, “Friends, we do not need to wait until morning. We have made our decision, and we will be bound by it. Our species need one another like the mangroves need the swamp. Without you we are nothing, and you are nothing. Let us take you back to the settlement, or the storm will destroy us all.”
At first, there was no movement for the cave, and the waving of thin legs stilled. Plevo thought he heard a muttering and a clacking of shells deep inside the cave, and then the psiders were spilling out of the opening, their fine limbs disentangling from one another like the unfurling of an anemone. They scuttled toward the waiting hoverbeest, who greeted them with open flippers. Scooping up as many of the hard bodies as he could carry, Plevo rose from his resting place on his skirt, and jetted off over the turbulent waves.
The sound of the great tsunami could be heard now: a rumble so deep that Plevo felt it physically, despite the speed with which he moved over the marsh. He could not recall a storm of this intensity, and fear almost paralysed his villi, so that he dropped toward the waves. The grip of many hard legs tightened instinctively around his body, bringing back to him the urgency of his mission. All around him, other hoverbeests flew, the turbulence of each aiding the others’ flight. He saw a branch, whipped from a shattered mangrove, strike Legot in the skirt. The air which kept her above the waves was knocked out, and Plevo felt the effort and distress of the old hoverbeest as she tried to regain height. Some of the psiders she carried dropped into the liquid, and others made mad leaps onto the branches of the offending mangrove, where they curled themselves around the remaining branches as tightly as ropes.
The very top of a wave struck Legot, sending her off balance, and the force from her struggling villi drove her into the trunk of the mangrove. The last Plevo saw of his mentor was her peaceful, unconscious face as it sank below the waves.
Desperately trying to stifle his grief, Plevo willed the remaining hoverbeest to greater speed. The curved horizon revealed the towering delicate form of the settlement ahead, shining serenely in the moonlight, despite the violence of the world around it. The ache in his villi was intense now, and he knew that he could not glide at this pace and height for much longer. One of the young psiders he carried burrowed more deeply into his flipper, hiding its eyes in fear. Plevo needed no reminding of his responsibility toward these creatures, and to his own people. Grinding his lips together against the pain, he maintained his speed, reaching the platform of the city just before his strength gave out.
The psiders scuttled to shelter inside the buildings, the lower floors of which were constructed with solid, sturdy walls against just such events as these. Pausing to settle briefly on to his skirt, Plevo watched the tsunami approach before he too skated to safety. It rose like a great dark wall, unthinkably massive. Uprooted mangroves were silhouetted deep within the liquid, like insects in amber. He could not help thinking of Legot and Speckle, their bodies carried by that great wave to another part of their world.
Racing into the shelter of the building nearest, he was embraced and crushed by a mixture of soft skirts and hard shells, all mingled in the darkness. They huddled together as the great wave hit the settlement. There was the sound of shattering walkways and sharp impacts of debris on the side, but their city remained intact. For minutes, the quality of the sound outside changed, and Plevo knew that they must be completely immersed. The group-mind remained serene though, and he understood they were all safe.
As suddenly as it had come, they heard the slurping sound of the wave fall. Pushing open the door tentatively, Plevo glided out to survey the city. All the buildings remained largely intact, although many of the spun-sugar walkways which had linked them had been shattered. Shards protruded from the sides of buildings like broken bones. Behind him, he heard the clatter of delicate feet behind him on the platform, as a group of psiders gathered around the base of his skirt.
“Looks like there’ll be lots of work for us to do,” one of them commented.
Plevo smiled a little bitterly, his flippers waving gently in response to the ambivalence he felt. The loss of Legot’s intelligence to the group-mind would be keenly felt. “Yes,” he said quietly, “There is a lot to do, lots to construct. But we’ll do it together.” He felt again the value of the hoverbeests’ resolution, swiftly but decisively made in the swamp.
Plevo was deeply impressed by the moral will of his people, although they did not need his patronage. The recognition and value placed on the finely balanced symbiosis between the hoverbeests and the psiders was something they could be proud of more than any technological advance they might make. The moons rose over the curved horizon, sending silver beams through the vapor and highlighting the beauty of their shattered city. Light caught the remaining translucent walkways which linked the tall buildings, and Plevo was reminded again of how they stood stronger together. A city for both species.